Book Review: Nervous Conditions

Both a coming-of-age novel and cultural criticism, Nervous Conditions examines the effects of “post-colonialism” on young African women. The novel features Tambu, a young girl who gets the opportunity to be educated at a Christian missionary school after her brother dies. Initially, Tambu believes that eduction is her path to a better, brighter future; but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the white man’s education has devastating effects on Tambu, her cousin Nyasha, and society as a whole.

The book: Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Nervous Conditions is an incredibly smart and thought-provoking novel. While the story starts off a bit slow, it picks up nicely after Tambu gets sent to school in her late brother’s place. What makes the novel interesting isn’t the plot, but Tambu’s analysis of the world around her. During a scene where her wealthy and educated uncle Babamukuru lashes out at his daughter (Tambu’s cousin) for coming home late, Tambu realizes that toxic masculinity isn’t unique to poor families like hers: The victimisation, I saw, was universal. It didn’t depend on poverty, on lack of education or on tradition. It didn’t depend on any of the things I had thought it depended on. Men took it everywhere with them. Even heroes like Babamukuru did it. And that was the problem.”

While much of the social commentary is told rather than shown, I think it works well in the context of this coming-of-age novel. From a young age, Tambu has been led to believe that education is the solution to all of her family’s problems – that education will lift her out of poverty and make her more worldly and civilized. The longer Tambu spends in school, however, the more she sees that the education she so desperately wanted is problematic. Not only is the sexism that Tambu resents still prevalent in school, but education at a missionary school revolves around the idea that African lifestyles and traditions are inferior to Western ideals – an idea which many of the students internalize, leading them to look down upon their own culture. As a young woman who is slowly realizing that education is not the panacea she was promised, I think it makes sense for Tambu to explicitly articulate those thoughts.

Like the social commentary, the characters in Nervous Conditions are brilliant and nuanced. Not only are they complex, but they act as vehicles for further social commentary, as they are each the product of their unique upbringing. Tambu’s uncle Babamukuru, for example sees himself as superior to his family members because he is more educated and financially successful than they are – but it’s clear that this belief is the result of being raised and practically brainwashed by white missionaries. Nyasha’s outspoken nature and unwillingness to be seen as inferior to her male peers is the result of spending some of her formative years abroad, which gave her the unique opportunity to observe and question cultural differences at a young age. It’s hard to see any main character in this novel as better or worse than one another, when they are all trying to survive the effects of colonialism.

Overall, I really enjoyed and appreciated Nervous Conditions. The beginning was a bit slow, and the ending a bit abrupt – but I can give the abrupt ending a pass knowing that there are two sequels to this novel. Nervous Conditions is a cutting and compelling critique on colonialism, and I think it should be required reading for high-school or college students. I highly recommend this novel, and can’t wait to read The Book of Not and This Mournable Body.

Book Review: Real Life

Another read from the Booker longlist! Real Life follows Wallace, a gay, Black 4th-year PhD student in a rigorous and predominantly white biochemistry program at the University of Wisconsin. Taking place over a particularly eventful summer weekend, Real Life illustrates the pain of trying to fit into white spaces as a person of color.

The book: Real Life by Brandon Taylor
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Real Life is a novel that somehow manages to be compulsively readable, incredibly moving, and full of brilliant social commentary. The story takes place over a single summer weekend, dissecting the way each event – from failed laboratory experiments, to microaggressions by his well-intentioned white friends – contributes to Wallace’s frustration and mental fatigue. Because the emotional impact of Wallace’s experience is so deeply explored, Wallace is a very well-developed character despite the novel covering such a short timespan.

In addition to being beautifully written and intimate, Real Life is also full of excellent social commentary. Taylor shows how Wallace is subjected to dozens of microaggressions on a daily basis, how his white friends make him carry their white guilt, and how even his non-white friends make conversations about Wallace’s struggles about how they are struggling too, stop being so selfish! These dynamics play out in Wallace’s friend group, with his lab-mates and graduate advisor, and even in his most intimate relationship. Taylor demonstrates the massive mental and emotional toll this all takes on Wallace: Wallace is aware of the casual racism in the spaces he occupies, and he recognizes the behavior of his peers as unfair, but he doesn’t stand up for himself because having to experience that casual racism on a daily basis is already exhausting enough.

Real Life also provides great commentary on how racial trauma compounds other traumas. Wallace finds the casual racism in his friend-group and graduate program emotionally exhausting, but he is dealing with other stresses too: unresolved childhood traumas, the death of his father, and the pressures of his demanding graduate program. When Wallace talks to his white friends about his problems, though, they respond by sharing the ways in which they relate to him, implying that their experiences are the same (which of course, they aren’t). This point – that being a graduate student or healing from trauma isn’t stressful for Wallace’s white classmates in the same way that is for him, because Wallace has to deal with racism on top of everything else – was something that I really appreciated, and I thought that Taylor did an excellent job of clearly showing this without explicitly stating it.

I took one main issue with Real Life, and that was the single chapter of the book that is told from Wallace in the 1st-person (the rest of the book is written in the 3rd-person). In this chapter, Wallace is telling the story of a traumatic childhood event to the guy he is hooking up with. It is a beautifully written chapter, but as a story that Wallace is supposed to be telling to someone he doesn’t know that well, it just wasn’t believable for me.

*Minor spoiler in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!*

I also want to mention that one of the relationships portrayed in this novel is extremely unhealthy. The scenes involving this relationship were particularly painful to read, and because Taylor’s commentary is shown rather than told, Wallace never explicitly grapples with the fact that the relationship is abusive. While frustrating and heartbreaking to read about, I do think this relationship brilliantly (and horrifyingly) illustrates the way Wallace has been conditioned to endure pain. In So You Want To Talk About Race, Ijeoma Oluo says that being Black in America is like being in an abusive relationship, but the abuser is society as a whole – Wallace’s unhealthy relationship in Real Life definitely brings this point to mind.

Overall, I thought Real Life was phenomenal. The writing was strong, the main character was complex and well-developed, and the social commentary was incredibly moving. Although I had a couple minor issues with it, I am so glad that I read Real Life, and am excited to check out whatever Taylor publishes next. I highly recommend this novel.

Trigger warnings: sexual violence, racial slurs.

Book Review: How Much of These Hills is Gold

I’m continuing my way through the Booker Prize longlist with How Much of These Hills is Gold. The story centers around two young Chinese-American siblings, Sam and Lucy, who become orphans during the peak of the American Gold Rush. After their Ba dies, the siblings set on a journey to bury him, and to find a home for themselves beyond their poor mining town.

The book: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I have mixed feelings on this novel, but I’ll start with what worked for me. Structurally, How Much of These Hills is Gold was very interesting: the novel is divided into four sections, which are non-linear and not all narrated by the same person. Non-linear timelines can be so hit or miss for me, but Zhang executed this one beautifully; I particularly liked that the family’s history prior to Ba’s death wasn’t described until after Ba’s passing. Things are going well for the family in the second part of the book, but it is clear (to the reader) from the first section that their luck is going to turn – this dramatic irony left me with a sense of suspense, dread, and impending doom.

I also really enjoyed Zhang’s writing voice, which manages to pack subtle, yet powerful, commentary into seemingly simple sentences. Through Sam and Lucy’s experiences, Zhang depicts the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the intense racism that Chinese Americans faced in the 19th-century. Some of the prejudices that Lucy and Sam experience – particularly the way they are fetishized and exoticized, and the way their teacher talks about “domesticating” them – felt like they could have been written about contemporary times, rather than 170 years ago.

The character development is where I start to have mixed feelings. Lucy, who I consider to be the main character of the novel, is portrayed as lacking agency and a strong sense of self, while her sibling Sam is full of swagger and personality. Surprisingly, I thought Lucy was more well-developed than Sam: the driving forces behind Lucy’s reserved nature are deeply explored, whereas Sam is portrayed as bold but somewhat hard-to-understand. I would have loved to see more of the novel from Sam’s perspective! At the same time, I can appreciate that Zhang decided to focus more on the internal workings of someone reserved and insecure, who in real life might be overlooked next to their spunky sibling (or maybe I’m just projecting my middle-child baggage onto a fictional character).

I feel even more conflicted about the portrayal of Sam and Lucy’s Ba, who for the first two sections is characterized as an intimidating, prideful, and at times violent alcoholic. Then, the third section of the book is narrated by Ba himself, and Zhang shows the family history from his perspective, as well as the pain and trauma behind his abusive behavior. While this chapter was incredibly moving, and added layers of nuance to the story, I also found it troubling. Yes, the abusive character in this novel is obviously struggling with his own trauma, but why should that mean that he gets to be the most complex and well-explored character in the novel? When authors do this, it almost feels like they are excusing abusive characters for their atrocious behavior.

Where I took the most issue with the book, though, was the ending. Without spoiling anything, How Much of These Hills is Gold ends with a character making a huge sacrifice that (to me) felt completely unnecessary. The emotional impact of that sacrifice wasn’t well-explored, either, so the ending felt abrupt and unsettling. On top of that, the last sentence of the book leaves things open-ended, so the novel’s ending is not only jarring, but also vague.

As you can probably tell, How Much of These Hills is Gold was a rather mixed bag for me. Although this review focuses more on what I didn’t enjoy, I really liked the majority of this novel. I found the prose and main characters complex and compelling, and the commentary intensely powerful. But the aspects of this novel that didn’t work for me really didn’t work for me. With a different ending, this book would have been a 4-star read, but because of the vague and abrupt ending, I’m rating it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: The Hilarious World of Depression

The Hilarious World of Depression is a memoir inspired by author John Moe’s podcast of the same name. In the podcast, Moe interviews comedians, writers, and musicians about their experiences with depression and other mental illnesses. While Moe hosts the podcast and occasionally peppers his own anecdotes into episodes, the show is very much focused on his guests. In his new memoir, Moe details his own experiences with depression, and also synthesizes the insights he gained about mental illness through hosting interviews.

The book: The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe
Genre: Nonfiction, memoir
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The Hilarious World of Depression is honest, powerful, and necessary. John Moe tells his life story through the lens of mental illness, and reflects on past experiences that he now realizes were influenced by depression. He speaks frankly about the trauma of growing up with an alcoholic parent, feeling like an imposter and failure throughout his career, and blaming himself for the loss of a loved one. Some of these reflections – especially Moe’s account of blaming himself for a family member’s death – are painful to listen to, but they are extremely powerful. I believe that accounts like Moe’s are necessary in order for society to eventually stop stigmatizing mental illness and those who suffer from it.

The stories Moe tells will resonate with anyone who has experienced mental illness (even just briefly), and will likely also help some people to realize they’re struggling. His accounts of chasing accomplishments, yet feeling unsatisfied and imposter-like after achieving them – behavior that was common and normalized in my grad program – made me realize that not taking pride in and severely minimizing achievements isn’t healthy! It’s something that I’ve started working on, thanks to this book.

Moe’s stories aren’t only for those who have experienced symptoms of mental illness, though. Throughout the memoir, Moe reiterates that depression is a disease of the brain, and frames the seemingly “illogical” choices of a person with depression through that lens. Combined with vivid accounts of his own experiences, Moe’s characterization of depression as a devastating disease (one which nobody would choose to have) allows readers who might not grasp the realities of depression to better understand and empathize with those who do suffer from it.

While I appreciated the overall message of the book, not everything about The Hilarious World of Depression worked for me. Moe uses a gratuitous amount of metaphors to explain depression to readers who may not have firsthand experience with it, and some of those metaphors overlook the very nuance of mental illness that this book is supposed to convey. Early in the book, Moe says that not getting help for mental illness is like being hungry but not going to the “free pizza shop” around the corner. This metaphor seems more harmful than helpful, because therapy is rarely cheap let alone free (at least in the United States), and also because finding a therapist can be a huge ordeal – it’s not as simple as just walking around the corner to the “therapy store.” Moe also at one point likens a brain with depression to the war-torn Middle East, which seems wrong in a way that I can’t quite articulate.

Ultimately, I really appreciated The Hilarious World of Depression (even with its problematic metaphors), and would recommend it. This book has the potential to help individuals with depression to feel less alone and ashamed, to motivate those with mental illness to seek out help, and to inspire empathy and understanding in people who haven’t experienced mental illness themselves. I also recommend checking out Moe’s podcast by the same name, which achieves many of the same things as the book, but features a wide range of guests and their unique experiences.

Trigger warnings: suicide.

Book Review: Such A Fun Age

Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age opens with Emira Tucker, a 25-year-old black woman, being called to babysit for the white Chamberlain family during a late-night crisis. Emira takes the Chamberlains’ older daughter, Briar, to the supermarket to distract her from the commotion at home, when she is accused by the store’s security guard of kidnapping the white toddler. After the incident is resolved, two white people in Emira’s life – her employer Alix Chamberlain, and a customer named Kelley who witnessed and videotaped the racist supermarket incident – take it upon themselves to help Emira in whatever way they can.

The book: Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

I had a great time reading Such a Fun Age. The novel is fast-paced and highly readable, with riveting scenes that engrossed me in the way that a TV drama would. I thought the characters were compelling, too; although they weren’t always relatable, I found them complex and believable.

Where Such a Fun Age excels the most to me, though, is in the social commentary and criticism that is packed throughout the story. The book features two well-intentioned white characters (Alix and Kelley) who claim they want to help Emira – yet they both repeatedly subject her to microaggressions, and manipulate her in their attempts to help. By portraying Alix and Kelley as simultaneously well-intentioned and harmful, Reid brilliantly illustrates the concept that good intentions can still be problematic and have damaging effects. Through Alix and Kelley’s actions, Reid also demonstrates how white people can recognize others’ actions as racist, yet fail to see their own racism.

Spoilers in the next paragraph – read at your own risk!

My main complaint about Such a Fun Age is that the drama feels heavy-handed at times. One of the major plot drivers is an unrealistic coincidence where two high-school enemies are reunited as adults when one shows up as a plus-one at the other’s extravagant Thanksgiving party. The novel also ends somewhat abruptly with a dramatic blowout that is being televised in realtime for the local news. These excessively dramatic scenes were only a minor problem for me, though. Drama isn’t inherently bad (in fact, sometimes it’s really entertaining – that’s why soap operas are a thing!), and the over-the-top scenes effectively heightened characters’ inner conflicts and interpersonal tensions.

Ultimately, I really enjoyed Such a Fun Age. I found the novel addictively compelling, and the characters realistically complex. I also appreciated the novel’s blend of entertaining drama and thought-provoking social commentary. I would recommend this book, with the caveat to also read some of the more critical reviews if you’re unsure.

Month in Review: July 2020

It’s the first of the new month, so you know the drill: time to look back on another month of reading! I’m slightly changing the format of these month-in-review posts by incorporating a small section dedicated to things I’ve cooked/baked. During a conversation with Melanie at Grab the Lapels (who I highly recommend following!), it came up that I don’t really post about baking, despite my blog being called “Books and Bakes.” So the new section is an attempt to bring baking back to Books and Bakes.

Books read:

  • Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas – DNF
  • The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell – 4 stars out of 5
  • Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh – 2.5 stars out of 5
  • Hunger by Roxane Gay – 4.5 stars out of 5
  • Big Friendship by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman – 3 stars out of 5
  • Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid – 4 stars out of 5
  • The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe – 3.5 stars out of 5

Books in progress/August TBR:

Apparently I’m the type of person who sets a July reading goal of 9 books, doesn’t come close to completing it, then sets the same unrealistic goal for August! We’ll see how it goes. This month’s TBR is influenced by the Booker Prize longlist, which I’m going to try to read through (more or less) before the winner is announced.

  • The Origin of Others by Toni Morrison. I’m currently reading this short book of essays about how the act of “othering” people allows those in power to abuse their authority without feeling guilty about it. It’s very powerful.
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. Still reading this for a book club! It’s also incredibly powerful so far.
  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay. After absolutely loving Hunger last month, I’m excited to read Difficult Women. I’ve heard that Hunger is Gay’s best work, but I want to explore more of her books and decide for myself 🙂
  • How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zheng. This is from the Booker longlist, but it was already on my list of books that I wanted to finish before the end of 2020. Its place on the longlist is giving me the push I need to prioritize it.
  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor. Another one of the Booker-longlisted books that I was already really excited about (thanks in large part to Emily and Gil‘s glowing reviews).
  • Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. This is also on my radar because of the Booker prize. The third book in this trilogy (This Mournable Body) got longlisted, but since I haven’t read the other books yet, I’m starting here.
  • We Want Our Bodies Back by Jessica Care Moore. This has been on my radar ever since reading Melanie’s excellent review, and I’m really excited to read it for myself!
  • Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler. Honestly, this is one of the Booker-longlisted books that I’m less excited about…but I’m reading it anyway because sometimes I end up really enjoying books that I “wasn’t excited about.” We’ll see.
  • The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi. Hahaha I was saving the best for last. I have been anticipating this release for so long and I’m SO excited for this read!!!

Some recommended posts:

  • Stargazer’s clever review of Circe in the form of a fictional interview! It was super creative, and perfectly captured Circe’s character.
  • Stephanie’s moving post about how reading “Will I Ever Be Good Enough?” by Karyl McBride helped her out of a really (mentally and emotionally) rough place.

Things I baked!

This month I baked red velvet cupcakes with cookies and cream frosting, rhubarb pie bites, and a birthday cake for my husband!

Other July photos: